Independent Studies in Penn Charter's Upper School

At the board a few weeks before graduation, Henry Davis OPC ‘22 wrote, read and translated phrases in ancient Greek in front of gathered faculty, parents, caregivers and peers. Hyun Su Price OPC ‘22 showed the extraordinary detail and layering of house music he composed digitally and played for the audience. Sydney DelBello Class of 2023 shared her experience working in elementary education, which inspired her to learn more about the science of neurodiversity and then write and illustrate a book for young readers.

High school girl presents to a roomful of adults.

These students were sharing their research and culminating work at the second annual Independent Study Symposium. More than 18 other Upper School students completed independent studies in 2021-22. 

The symposium — organized by Tim Clarke, an Upper School science teacher and frequent advisor to independent studies — is a way for students to showcase their work and gain experience in public speaking. “It was a good experience for them to present publicly, and in an academic way,” Clarke said.

Independent studies, each overseen by a faculty mentor, allow students to investigate a topic that they are interested in or passionate about that goes beyond PC’s Upper School course offerings. Students explored topics including forensic engineering, music and copyright law, the physics of rowing, and an introduction to Python coding language for robotics applications.

“We help brainstorm a path, encourage them to stretch themselves, and then help direct them along the way,” Clarke said. “Some students already are self-motivated and have topics that excite them. Others may need a little push, but then they really get into it.”

Independent studies are graded and become part of a student’s transcript. The formal recognition of demonstrated interest and self-driven work adds an element of rigor to the independent study experience, which prepares students well for the academic experience in college.

High school boy demonstrates a forensic engineering stress test

“Students’ initiatives to create and complete independent studies illustrate the intrinsic curiosity among our students and the expertise of our faculty who mentor the students in their research,” said Jody Sweeney, director of College Counseling.

Wesley Trautwein, Class of 2023, has long been interested in engineering but hadn’t taken any courses in it. “I wanted to just dip my toe in the water and figure out if I would enjoy it, and it actually expanded my interest in engineering,” said Wesley, of his independent study in forensic engineering.

“It was very student-led. I would find something I wanted to learn about and Mr. Clarke helped me learn all these things I otherwise would learn in college. It helped me pick my major and what kind of engineering I want to do.”

Wesley’s face lights up when describing the work he did testing the integrity of i-beams with different interior structures, all 3D printed in Penn Charter’s IdeaLab. A passion ignited, all through his own curiosity and initiative, and the opportunities available in the Upper School. 

“I definitely want to do more independent studies,” said Wesley with a wide grin.